What will Brexit mean for migrants, Calais and the Franco-British border?

Following Britain's vote to leave the European Union some French politicians are challenging the Le Touquet agreement, which in 2003 moved Britain's border with France to the French side of the Channel. So what will Brexit mean for the Franco-British border and the migrants camped on it?

A child in the Calais Jungle in Frebruary 2016
A child in the Calais Jungle in Frebruary 2016 AFP

Does Brexit changes anything regarding the Le Touquet agreement?

On Wednesday French President François Hollande promised not to change the treaty.

There are two reasons:

  • First, the Le Touquet accord was a bilateral agreement between France and the UK and has nothing to do with the European Union;
  • Secondly, Britain was never part of the Schengen free-movement zone and that will not change when it leaves the EU. The agreement was a border matter that solely concerns France and the UK.

But Britain will not be able to send back migrants, as it does now, given that France will not have to respect the EU's Dublin rules on refugees. Such rules allow European states to deport migrants back to the states where they landed in the continent.

However, immediately following the Brexit vote on Friday, some politicians, including the right-wing president of the regional council, Xavier Bertrand, called for a change in the treaty.

"It's clear that these agreements are very unbalanced and that their result is the Jungle in Calais," François Gemenne, a political scientist with Sciences Po Paris, told RFI. "They do not only play against France but against migrants themselves. They should have been renegotiated long ago."

The French government held back because it did not want to trigger a political crisis with the UK, he said. "But now that the crisis is there anyway, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be renegotiated."

Are the French authorities tempted by renegotiation?

There have been mixed signals from the French authorities. Back in March, Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said a Brexit would mean "the migrants will no longer be in Calais".

However, both Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve have said this week that nothing will change.

"In fact, the basic question that we should ask is why so many refugees are coming to Calais," says Jacques Myard, an MP withe right-wing opposition Republicans. "It is because Schengen is not working properly that we have a lot of migrants trying to enter Britain. So I think the Brexit doesn't change anything and that, on the continent, we should rethink the Schengen agreements."

What would a new agreement look like if there was one?

Some in France say that moving the border back to the English port of Dover would mean seeing people dying in the Channel, as they are in the Meditteranean sea right now.

Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart has call for a migrants' camp to be built in England.

"The wrong message would be saying 'we are going to send you migrants'," warns François Gemenne. "I'm afraid the migrants themselves could be used as a weapon of retaliation against the UK. It seems that an ideal agreement would be more balanced, where the UK would do its share and accept to accept some, if not all, migrants in Calais, starting with the unaccompanied minors."

What is the mood like in the Jungle migrant camp right now?

The impact the Brexit will have on migrants is hard to gauge. In the Jungle, where there are still 5,000 people, some might be questioning their future and wondering if England should remain their final destination.

"There are many questions," says Stéphane Duval, who runs the Jules Ferry migrant centre. "But Brexit isn’t causing any kind of turmoil. The people here are wondering whether the Brexit will make things easier or more complicated. Some fear a massive influx of people. There are a lot of questions but no common consensus on this."

Don't expect that issue to go away any time soon.

With Marine Le Pen's National Front gaining political ground, it could become one of the main issues of next year's presidential elections.

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